Simply Sullivan - Aug/Sep 20
Michelle and Eric Sullivan pose in front of their enormous 6’ x 8’ mirror in their historic home near Old Towne. “I found the mirror on Craigslist for $100 and love the way it fits perfectly in our living room,” says Michelle. “We enjoy searching thrift stores and antique malls in Old Towne for treasures.”
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When Orange County natives (and high-school sweethearts) Eric and Michelle Sullivan first saw the historic house for sale located just outside of Old Towne, they were so horrified by the home’s condition they didn’t even consider making an offer. Two weeks later when the price dropped by $30,000, they were still hesitant. Fortunately, they decided to take a chance on the house and have since transformed this unique residence into the dream home they envisioned for their family.
“We could see past all the neglect from it being a Chapman rental over the years,” says Michelle. “Even though it needed so much work, we had a vision and knew we could turn it into something we’d love. Our neighbors have since told us they are grateful that the house is in the hands of a family that will take care of it.”
High-school sweethearts, the Sullivans just celebrated their 25th anniversary this summer. Both are Orange County natives who attended Tustin High School.
Replete with gold medallions, the original ceiling is one of Michelle’s favorite architectural attributes of the home. With a little resourcefulness, the couple was able to artfully restore a section of the ceiling that had incurred water damage.
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Rented to Chapman students as a fraternity house for 12 years prior, the two-story, four-bedroom home was decidedly worse for wear when the Sullivans purchased the property last year. As soon as they moved in, they could tell that every last space inside had been rented out as sleeping quarters, including the closet and the little cubbies upstairs, one of which still had a sleeping bag in it. Right around that time, some Chapman film-school students knocked on the door and asked if they could pay money to film a horror movie there. The den was the perfect backdrop.
“The den was truly terrifying,” recalls Michelle. “All the windows were boarded up and it had a faux-rock fireplace and aluminum siding that looked like a trailer. It was just the right scene for their horror movie. We used the money they gave us to remove the siding and convert the den into our back patio.”
Built in 1903, the two-story, four-bedroom home originally belonged to the Bosch family from Germany, who had purchased the surrounding fields in the late 1800s to plant lemons and avocados. The property stayed in the Bosch family into the 1940s. According to the Sullivan’s current neighbors, a lovely older couple had lived in the home for 30 years and were known to bring at least seven Christmas trees inside during the holidays, thanks to the nine-foot-high ceilings.
Watching TV with their kids Gretta (18), Roxanne (15) and Eli (6).
The couple restored the kitchen in keeping with the era of the 1903 home. “We love the high ceilings and the subway tile backsplash,” says Michelle. “The barstools were a Craigslist find.”
An advocate for special-needs kids, Michelle wrote a book called “Eli Included,” named after their six-year-old son. “I wanted him to have a book he could show his kindergarten classmates explaining what Down syndrome is,” she says.
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While renovating the property, the Sullivans uncovered some interesting finds in the attic, including an old architectural drawing of the house by renowned Orange architect C.B. Bradshaw. Prominent in the early 1900s, he designed many of the district’s most iconic buildings, such as the Odd Fellows Lodge, Orange Union High School, the Rochester Hotel, the Royer Mansion, the Elks Club Lodge and French’s Opera House in Santa Ana.
“The architecture of this house is considered Victorian farmhouse,” says Eric. “It has some of the Victorian style but not as many of the ornate elements associated with a traditional Victorian. The walls are lathe and plaster, and the exterior showcases three-inch boards across. When we pulled out some of the wallpaper in one of the bedrooms, we found the same wood as the front of the house.”
Michelle says her favorite restoration project took place in the living room, which features an ornate ceiling outfitted in tile accented with gold medallions. There was quite a bit of water damage in one corner that needed repair, however, and the couple didn’t think they could save it without spending a fortune on a specialty contractor.
In the backyard, the Sullivan’s newly built swimming pool provides a peaceful retreat. Newly planted landscaping includes palm trees, a lawn and tropical foliage.
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“We ended up doing it ourselves,” she says. “Eric removed all the tiles along the border and was able to patch up the part that was damaged. We ordered gold medallions on Etsy. You would never know it isn’t original. We did a really good job restoring it for pennies.”
Other original elements of the home include the oak and fir floors that had been protected by carpeting through the years. The molding and windows are also still intact, as are most of the glass panes. In the kitchen, the couple retained the original built-in hutch but had to gut the entire space. Their new Shaker-style cabinets, subway tiles and quartzite countertops impart a classic, timeless look. The home’s original porch has been converted into a bedroom, while the bathroom retains the beautiful chandelier, copper fixtures and clawfoot tub. Michelle enjoys shopping for vintage items in Old Towne.
Michelle grew up in Santa Ana, and Eric grew up in Tustin. They met while attending Tustin High School and have been married for 25 years. They have four children, the oldest of whom is 21. Their young son, Eli, who was born with Down syndrome, inspired Michelle to launch a unique apparel company for kids with special needs called Littlest Warrior. The beautifully designed t-shirts feature messages of positivity, inclusion and awareness that help kids overcome misunderstandings and stigmas. An entire community of like-minded families has formed around Michelle’s inspiring venture.
The main bathroom still retains the original mirror, tub, floor and chandeliers. The couple added new cabinets and painted them vintage green.
The fabulous outdoor patio was previously a dark den with aluminum walls and covered windows. “We painted the rock wall white to brighten everything up,” says Michelle.
Eric plays guitar in the office adjacent to the kitchen. The midcentury bookshelf, lamp, globe and chair came from thrift stores or Craigslist.
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One of the joys of their home is the expansive yard large enough for the kids to play. The Sullivans also installed a swimming pool and backyard entertainment area surrounded by lawn and newly planted palm trees, plus a pink crepe myrtle tree they planted for their anniversary. A professional photographer, Michelle posted before-and-after videos and photos of the home on her Instagram account (@meeshellsullivan) under the category “1903 Fixer.”
For Eric and Michelle, life near Old Towne is everything they knew it could be.
“Orange is our dream town, and we are living out our dreams in Orange,” says Michelle. “We walk every day to the Circle and take the kids to the park or the fountain. We appreciate the university, the amazing history and the historic homes. We are so grateful to be able to give our home the TLC it deserves to carry it into the next era.
Written by Karen Anderson, Photos by Jeanine Hill
- New to the Neighborhood
- Know the Neighbors
- Talk of the Towne
- Old Towne Property
- Old Towne Talent
- Building Character
- Inside Art
- Garden Clippings
- Notes from a Neighbor
- Circle in the Square